Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Why We Read The Classics: Finding Your Story
By Emma Woodhead
Billions of books have been published in the world’s history, but there is a reason why readers circle back to the novels that have been deeply ingrained in our lives. The classical literature of the generations before us have helped shape the way society has been shaped, human interaction, and the desires we keep closest to our hearts.
The stories contained within this classic works of literature are not isolated incidents. They transcend among people of all ages and walks of life. It is similar to the saying that we study old buildings to learn how society was built. The same goes for literature. We read classic literature to see how the stories of humanity have formed. Readers have attached themselves to these stories because they see themselves among the characters that construct these narratives. These novels allow readers to create a deeper connection with other people and understand the readers’ struggles.
I have a friend who didn’t care about classic literature and had a deep loathing for the idea of sitting down and reading hundreds of pages of a single story. He was a closed-off person, raised in foster care, and the only subject that brought him any joy was science, biology to be exact. After telling him that I believed he didn’t like reading because he hadn’t found a book worth his excitement, he agreed to give the classic book I often talked about a chance. I gave him Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A few days later, he tells me about his thoughts on the book, which shocked me. When handing him the book, I believed that he would connect with the scientist who created life due to his scientific developments; both share the love for biology that helps them get out of bed in the morning. But I was wrong. My friend found comfort in the Creature. The character who could not communicate, who broke out into emotional fits when unable to express himself, and felt like he destroyed everything he touched. I never expected my friend to be connected to a character like that, nor did I expect that to spark his newfound love for literature.
I often wonder why people connect with the old characters of classic literature, and I’ve concluded that we crave to know we are not alone and that what has happened to us has happened before. We read Frankenstein to see that we are not the first, nor will we be the last to be abandoned and misunderstood. Similar to why we read Fydor Dostoevsky to realize that we are not the first person to have deep emotional turmoil and why we explore the stories of Jane Austen to acknowledge that we are not the first to fall hopelessly head over heels in love. As humans, we seek the know the meaning of our struggles and emotions, where they began, and how they were created. We seek validation with our thoughts and opinions and strive to find those who think similar to us as we learn from the people who walk before us and translate that into our lives today.
In a world that has always been complex, the books of the past show us that we can slow down and take the stories of others with understanding and passion. There is a reason why these stories have lasted as long as they do; they reflect to us what we desire to learn and experience. With that, we continue to cherish the works of past writers and the traditions that they have created for generations to follow.